The Doors of the Sea – conclusion

Posted: June 5, 2012 by J in Book review

The pantheism thing is intriguing. Does Hart think we Protties are like deists or like pantheists? Which I take to be two different systems. Or is the deist just a ‘scientific’ pantheist really? Either way I’d rather not be in their company, theologically speaking. This is one of the many things Calvin doesn’t explain: how the creature can be truly itself distinct from a sovereign God, existing in a real space that is outside of Him. In other words how the creation can have its own identity and not be merely an aspect of God’s mind.  If human agency is reducible ultimately to God’s will, if there is really no distance at all between his mind and our actions, then how are we not totally fused to his being? Either wholly internal to God, or else a kind of divine emanation or extrusion? Can these fundamental questions be satisfactorily answered from a Calvinist position? Because if not…

Hart’s contention that a space between God’s will and creaturely conditions permits the possibility of futility and meaninglessness in the world, rings true for me. How liberating it is to hear those words ‘an absurd remainder’. For those who suffer (and who does not?) I think this idea must come as a relief – that we can stop looking for the good in every evil, and counting our blessings, and just confess for a minute that what is happening to us is bad. (Perhaps we might even start to make some sense of Ecclesiastes – that would be nice!)

Though it comes almost as an afterthought, Hart’s point about pastoral realities is well taken. If we have a doctrine of suffering that we dare not speak to those whose suffering is most acute, of what value is such a doctrine? And we surely do have that problem, as any pastor will admit. Is there no gospel word about suffering that might comfort those overwhelmed with grief, that could bring light in the darkest place? The word ‘victory’ seems full of pastoral potential.

Overall, Hart has given us a beautifully short book, with whole chapters of gold in it, worth reading and re-reading. Hart does his theology from a biblical-theology starting point, which is a nice change from our tradition, with its basic divide into the two camps of systematic metaphysics and naïve proof-texting. He isn’t afraid to say when he finds other approaches obscuring the gospel, whether they come from atheists or Christians – and he critiques with a razor sharp knife. Overall he offers a significant biblical corrective to standard Western-church approaches to evil and suffering (i.e. approaches to the real world).

Quite a book.

  1. Ben Hudson says:

    Thanks very much for all that Jono.

    May I ask a question:
    Usually when I hear Calvinists talking about suffering and the will of God, they point to the cross as the closets thing we have to a paradigm for thinking about evil and its relationship to God’s will. Does Hart address this approach in the book? What is the significance of the cross in the victory of God for him?

    • Jonathan says:

      Yes good question Ben. Hart does not deal with the cross at length. The structure of his thought, around God’s victory, does centre on the cross, but he generally doesn’t zoom in much on anything, just sticks with the big picture of salvation-history. He would probably say that the book’s too small for him to attempt to deal with anything more detailed.

      The cross does feature as the moment of victory, but this is mentioned and assumed rather than explained much. We get comments like ‘God is not pleased with death…he is the conqueror of hell…he has condemned all these things by the power of the cross…’ (p.101).

      ‘At the heart of the gospel is a…triumphalism, a conviction that…the victory over evil and death has already been won: ‘When he ascended on high etc (Eph 4:8); ‘And having spolied principalities…he made an open show of them, triumphing over them in it” (Col 2:15).

      ‘the path [through suffering]…to his Kingdom…is opened to us by way of…the empty tomb.’

      With his emphasis on the victory of God, it’s not surprising if he sees the resurrection as the hinge of the story, rather than the death Jesus. The resurrection of Jesus is where God triumphs over and mocks death.

      But it would have been nice to have a section on this question of the cross as a paradigm for God’s relation to suffering and evil, whether for or against that view.

      Personally I think there are reasons to be cautious here. We all agree that what happened at the cross was unique in many ways. That moment is the focus of God’s plans in a way that other moments are not. The suffering that his Son endured was not his own but rather ours, which Jesus bore for our sakes. Not all suffering is vicarious or redemptive in these ways.

      This is not the whole story, there are no doubt things to learn on this issue from the cross. However, we may end up wanting to say that, in order to deliver us from a whole world of evil and suffering which God did NOT will for us, he took it instead upon himself, WILLINGLY, in the person of his Son. God willed the misery of the cross precisely because he did not will our misery.

      But I want to think on this further, these are half-formed thoughts.

      And there’s the further issue of how we Christians participate in the suffering of Christ – which IS God’s will for us. A very different question, I take it, from that of the children drowned in the Tsunami.

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